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Food for Thought: Fueling the Mind in Kentucky

July 9, 2014

By Michele Farrell
Senior Library Program Officer

Kentucky has developed an interesting way of addressing two problems: the slide in reading skills that happens over the summer months, and hunger. While on my site visit, I got to meet with people who are making a difference in the lives of children and teens in Kentucky. As Heather Dieffenbach, children and youth consultant at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives explained, Kentucky has the fifth highest ranking in food insecurity in the nation. Additionally, low-income children lose about 22 percent of their reading skills over the summer.

To address these problems, the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives partnered with the Kentucky Department of Education, public libraries and other local partners to expand the summer reading programs into areas targeting at-risk children. In 2013, $151,711 in LSTA funds was used by libraries to provide programming and staff support for summer literacy services while the Department of Education provided the meals through USDA's Summer Food Service Program. This program has been offered since 2011 and continues to be well received.

Patricia Richards, children’s services coordinator at the Covington Branch Library, runs the Fueling the Mind project for the Kenton County Public Library. The actual program is carried out at the Ludlow Elementary School because it has food facilities. It’s quite an operation. When I arrived, they had already served over 200 meals that morning and the children were still coming. Each child has a meal, does a group arts or science activity, then they either are read to or they pick out a book to take home to read. Patricia explained how a log is kept of each child’s reading activity. The children were having fun and were delighted to be able to take a book home. One little boy wanted to take two books he was so thrilled. I saw the same response from the children at the Union County Public Library and the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library.

As Debbie McClanahan, the director at Union County, explained, these children have few options for things to do during the summer. While visiting here I saw an older child with special needs being assisted and enjoying the background music that was on, making this a fun experience for all.

Betty Abdmishani, the manager at the Village Branch, explained that her branch is a safe haven and provides many services to its Latino and African American clientele. The Village Branch is in a strip mall surrounded by fast food chains. Betty and Kinzie Gaunce, the children’s librarian, said that they were providing an alternative for the children so they learn how to choose healthy food items like the fruits and vegetables served in the program.

When I arrived, there were 50 young people waiting for the program to begin. Sixteen public libraries offer Monday through Friday summer reading programs and meals for at-risk children. What struck me the most was how the children and staff were so involved in the activities and how everyone was happy. You couldn’t fake the enthusiasm and joy that I saw in each of these locations. The goals of Fueling the Mind are to encourage libraries to expand the duration of summer reading programs, increase the number of programs they offer, and increase the number of children in their reading programs. Last year, libraries that participated in this project extended their program lengths by 32 percent and offered 121 percent more programs.

Learn more on how museums and libraries can get involved with the Summer Food Service Program.

USDA's Summer Food Service Program:

Grants to State Library Administrative Agencies